Response to a must read 6 minute blog: Being brown in your gallery
This post is in response to Matariki Williams’ thought-provoking editorial Being brown in your gallery, published right here on Tusk. Matariki’s post reiterates how contentious Jono Rotman’s Mongrel Mob Portraits are, and the difficulty that public art galleries have in being socially inclusive. I would like to comment from the perspective of social inclusion in contemporary art exhibitions and corresponding public art galleries (so you’re aware, I identify as female and Pākehā, among other things).
I think in terms of social inclusion, the Mongrel Mob Portraits exhibition at City Gallery both failed and succeeded, but its curatorial framing, and need for staff training, exacerbated the issues.
The exhibition succeeded in terms of provoking discussion and I congratulate City Gallery on its boldness to exhibit such contentious and challenging subject matter. The exhibition also succeeded, to an unknown extent, in challenging narrow and ignorant reactions to the portraits from an unknown number of Pākehā visitors. This point is partly based on EyeContact reviewer Claire Mabey’s statement: “This exhibition carries with it the full weight of everything you ever heard about gangs and the Mob; but it begs us all to feel the full weight of our own capacity to react differently.”
However, I think the Gallery could have been even bolder in its curating of the subject matter so as to include a wider audience and potentially reduce, rather than increase, stereotyping of Māori men.
As Matariki Williams pointed out, the exhibition wasn’t made for a Māori audience, and didn’t consider the impact on a female Māori audience. It was Orientalist – it objectified the indigenous ‘Other’. It was made for the Caucasian majority, like that of the artist and the City Gallery curators, or any other ethnicity that might be discomforted by large portraits of brown gang members. Many public art galleries tick the ‘social inclusion’ box with a minority ethnicity-based exhibition, but being that the exhibition was not for the people whom the exhibition was about, it definitely failed at social inclusion. It failed in that it focused solely on an already marginalised ethnicity without context to their marginalisation, and therefore perpetuated negative Māori male stereotypes. I understand the need for galleries to present art in a way that corresponds with the artist’s integrity, and in this case Rotman had heavy duty agreements with the Mob. In this instance I suggest the Mongrel Mob Portraits could have been exhibited next to/near a parallel exhibition with a related theme to give a wider, more balanced perspective and more context. For example, the Portraits could have been contrasted with an art exhibition showcasing Māori men in a more positive light, or about Pākehā gang members or some other topic contextualising another ethnicity. The Gallery had all the power to contextualise this exhibition with another – the curator’s job is to really consider how to present the art to give meaning or tell a story – and that story can be negotiated (to a point) with the artist(s).
It was disturbing to read in Being brown in your gallery that a visitor host was telling other visitors that a Mob member was viewing the Mongrel Mob Portraits. I’m sure that the Gallery, a cultural place for the public, wouldn’t have approved of a staff member objectifying a visitor like that. I can only assume that the gallery attendant’s inexperience meant a personal reaction became unprofessional. To ensure visitor disrespect doesn’t occur, comprehensive training for all staff around social inclusion, and dealing with complex front-of-house situations, would help (other public art galleries and the museum sector as a whole could learn a lot from this situation).
As you rightly explain Matariki, your relationship with exhibition content depends on your past experiences with it. As a statutory social worker in Porirua, I worked with Māori whanau trying to raise children in cycles of poverty and (corresponding) family violence. Some of the social work intervention happened in Cannons Creek, a geographically cut-off, low-socioeconomic, largely state-house suburb of Porirua City. On my way to a Cannons Creek home visit one day, I spotted a (patched) group of brown men having a beer on a sunny doorstep. Who knows if drunkenness and violent nonsense incurred, or if they just had a couple to relax? What was important for my job at the time is that any children were safe (none were with the drinking men).
The men portrayed in the the Mongrel Mob Portraits were once babies, toddlers and little boys. I saw them as little boys. They’re good people, and unfortunately grew up in (psychologically and/or physically) violent homes. I saw these men as boys who just want to be loved.
Similarly, Jono Rotman’s world was expanded and his eyes were opened during his photographic journey with the Mob: “It peeled the lid off the NZ I knew—some of these guys are from serious poverty and from some fucking difficult environments... I think as they get older their outlook gets wider: it's less about turf war, and more about the health of their community.” Unfortunately the exhibition doesn’t show Rotman’s increased empathy with or understanding of New Zealand’s discriminated tangata whenua. It seems that if it did, the Mob wouldn’t have agreed for Rotman to publish the photos. They wanted to be portrayed as strong. Naturally, no-one, whatever their ethnicity, wants to be portrayed as weak – the strength of a community resides in its members’ pride of their community’s unique culture.
Contemporary art is challenging because of its subjective nature. Given this, no exhibition of contemporary art can be an outright ‘success’. But galleries must strive to be as inclusive as possible, in their exhibition development and visitor hosting. City Gallery was bold to exhibit this subject matter, but in return it needs to have the strength to listen, learn, be reflexive and develop itself further. Kia kaha.
Claire Adele Baker
1. Read the full review here: http://eyecontactsite.com/2015/04/mongrel-mob-portraits-at-city-gallery
2. Quote from an interview with Julian Morgans. Full interview here: http://www.vice.com/en_au/read/portraits-of-new-zealands-mighty-mongrel-mob